Ahead of UN session, Sahrawis recollect decades of betrayal that enabled Moroccan colonization

The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) became “hostage to the Moroccan authorities,” unable even “to report on the human rights situation in the territory,” said Kamal Fadel, Western Sahara’s representative to Australia and the Pacific  

October 10, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
Photo: freewesternsahara.org

Amid the ongoing war for the liberation of Western Sahara from Morocco, which is illegally occupying 80% of its territory, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is reportedly scheduled to discuss the conflict for the second time this month on Monday, October 10. Two more sessions are scheduled for October 17 and 27. 

The “Council is expected to renew the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which expires on 31 October,” states the UNSC’s monthly forecast for October. 

Known officially as the Sahrawi Democratic Republic (SADR), Western Sahara – a founding and full member-state of the African Union (AU) – is Africa’s last colony. It is listed by the UN among the last countries awaiting complete decolonization. 

Its former colonizer, Spain, ceded the country to Morocco at the persuasion of the US in 1976, despite the fact that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had dismissed Morocco’s territorial claims. The position supporting the Sahrawi peoples’ right to self-determination has since been upheld by the UN, the AU, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR).    

MINURSO was established by the UNSC in April 1991 to facilitate the realization of this right by organizing a referendum. In August that year, a ceasefire was secured between the Polisario Front (PF), recognized by the UN as the international representative of the people of Sahrawi, and Morocco.

However, with the backing of the US and France, Morocco has been able to subvert the organization of this referendum till date. On November 13, 2020, the ceasefire fell apart after 29 years. That day, Moroccan troops crossed the occupied territory into the UN-patrolled buffer zone in the southeastern town of Guerguerat to remove unarmed Sahrawi demonstrators blockading an illegal road that Morocco had built through the territory to Mauritania        

“Morocco’s armed incursion was a flagrant violation of the terms of the ceasefire that was declared under UN auspices in 1991,” Kamal Fadel, SADR’s representative to Australia and the Pacific, told Peoples Dispatch. “The Sahrawi army had to react in self-defense and to protect the Sahrawi civilians that were attacked by the Moroccan army.”

Hugh Lovatt and Jacob Mundy, in their policy brief to the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published in May 2021, observed that “Self-determination for the Sahrawi people appears more remote than when MINURSO was first launched in 1991.” ” With its mandate renewed well over 40 times, the UN “has little to show” for three decades of MINURSO, they said.

“With no power and no support from the UNSC,” MINURSO became “hostage to the Moroccan authorities,” unable even “to report on the human rights situation in the territory, unlike any other UN peace-keeping mission,” Fadel noted. 

“We wasted 30 years waiting for MINURSO to deliver the promised referendum. MINURSO’s failure seriously damages the UN’s credibility and encourages authoritarian regimes to defy the international community,” he argued.

While reiterating that “we still believe in a peaceful, just and durable solution under the auspices of the UN,” Fadel maintained that “the UN has to work hard to repair its badly damaged reputation in Western Sahara.”

The position of the UN Secretary General’s former Personal Envoy for Western Sahara was left vacant for more than two years after the resignation of Horst Köhler in May 2019. It was only in October 2021 that Staffan de Mistura was appointed to the post. Mistura, who will be briefing the UNSC member states in the sessions scheduled this month to discuss Western Sahara, is yet to pay a visit to the territory in question. His plan to visit Western Sahara earlier this year was canceled without any reasons stated. 

“We hope Mr. Mistura will be able to visit the occupied areas of Western Sahara soon and meet with the Saharawi people freely. It is odd that he has not yet set foot in the territory he is supposed to deal with,” remarked Fadel. Mistura has already met with Foreign Ministers of Morocco and Spain, European officials, and US State Secretary Antony Blinken.  

US and European powers facilitated Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara  

Western Sahara was colonized by Spain in the early 1880s. Faced with an armed rebellion by the Polisario Front (PF) from 1973, the Spanish government of fascist dictator Francisco Franco agreed in 1974 to hold a referendum. It was an obligation on Spain to fulfill the Sahrawi right to self-determination, in line with the UN’s 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries.

The neighboring former French colonies of Morocco and Mauritania, eyeing Sahrawi’s mineral wealth and a vast coastline, had already laid claim over the territory since their independence. With about $20 million-worth of weapons supplied by the US, Morocco began preparation for an armed invasion. Informing the then Spanish Foreign Minister Pedro Cortina about this impending attack in a meeting on October 4, 1975, US State Secretary Henry Kissinger had nudged him to negotiate an agreement with Morocco.

“We are ready to do so.. However, it is important to maintain the form of a referendum on self-determination… Self-determination does not mean independence, although that is one of the options included to give it credibility, but what the people of the area will be called on to do is to show their preference either for Morocco or for Mauritania,” Cortina had responded.

“The problem is the people won’t know what Morocco is, or what Mauritania is,” said Kissinger, with his characteristic cynicism. Cortina corrected him, saying, “Unfortunately, they have learned well from experience what those countries are and they know what all the possibilities are.”

In a subsequent meeting on October 9, Cortina confronted Kissinger about US support for an imminent Moroccan invasion of Sahrawi, then known as Spanish Sahara. He was told that if Spain failed to reach an agreement with Morocco, “it’s not an American concern.” In effect, Kissinger had told Cortina that if Moroccan forces invaded Spanish Sahara using American weapons, the US would not intervene to stop it. 

“We have no particular view about the future of the Spanish Sahara,” Kissinger elaborated on the US position. “I told you privately that.. the future of Spanish Sahara doesn’t seem particularly great. I feel the same way about Guinea-Bissau, or Upper Volta. The world can survive without a Spanish Sahara; it won’t be among the countries making a great contribution. There was a period in my life when I didn’t know where the Spanish Sahara was, and I was as happy as I am today.”

“Before phosphates were discovered,” Cortina exclaimed. He was referring to the large deposits found in the territory. Phosphates are the main mineral needed to make fertilizers, of which Morocco went on to become one of the world’s largest producers. 

On securing guarantees on access to phosphate and fishing rights, the Spanish government – which had by then also realized that it would not be able to install a puppet Sahrawi elite under Spanish control in power after independence – signed the Madrid Accords. With this treaty, signed on November 14, 1975, only days before the death of Franco who had already slipped into coma, Spain ceded its colony to Morocco and Mauritania.

‘No tie of territorial sovereignty’: ICJ  

The UN does not recognize this treaty, which had disregarded the advisory opinion given by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The advisory opinion was given on the request of the UN General Assembly only a month before, on October 16, 1975.  The ICJ, which had also been approached by Morocco, stated that “the materials and information presented.. do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity.”  

However, the US and its Western allies calculated that an independent Western Sahara under the rule of PF, supported by Algeria which was perceived as inclined toward the Soviet Union, would be against their Cold War interests. And so, the aspirations of the Sahrawi people to realize their internationally recognized right to self-determination, which was pitied as ‘unfortunate’ by the Spanish foreign minister at the time, was trampled over for imperial interests. 

By the start of 1976, Moroccan forces occupied the western coastal region of Sahrawi, while Mauritanian forces took over the eastern interior region, forcing 40% of the Sahrawi population to flee to Algeria, where they continue to reside in refugee camps in the border town of Tindouf.    

Guerrillas of the PF fought back, quickly regaining the eastern territory from Mauritania, which made peace with SADR and withdrew all its claims by 1979. However, “[b]acked by France and the United States, and financed by Saudi Arabia, Morocco’s armed forces eventually countered Polisario by building a heavily mined and patrolled 2,700-kilometer berm,” Lovatt and Mundy recount in their policy brief to ECFR.

Constructed with the help of American companies Northrop and Westinghouse, the berm is the second longest wall in the world, reinforced with the world’s longest minefield consisting of about seven million landmines. It is among the largest military infrastructures on earth.

Although the Moroccan forces managed to bring about a stalemate by the 1980s with the completion of the construction of the berm, PF’s forces continued to antagonize their positions along the wall. By the time the ceasefire was agreed upon in 1991 following the establishment of MINURSO with a mandate to conduct a referendum, over a thousand enforced disappearances had been reported from the territory under Moroccan occupation. Yet, the protests were unrelenting. 

In the meantime, SADR’s cause was gaining increasing support. In 1980, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) recognized the PF as the international representative of Western Sahara. In 1984, after SADR was welcomed as a member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union (AU), Morocco quit the organization in protest. 

Three years later, Morocco applied for membership of the European Communities, which later evolved into the European Union (EU). However, not considered a European country, Morocco’s application was turned down. It was only in 2017 that Morocco joined the AU, to which it was admitted without recognition of any territorial rights over SADR, which is a founding and full member-state of the AU. 

In this context of the increasing isolation it faced in the 1990s over its occupation of SADR – except for the backing of the US, France and Spain – Morocco agreed to hold a referendum, and eventually signed the Houston Agreement with the PF in 1997. This remains till date the only agreement signed between the two. Voter lists were then prepared by MINURSO, and SADR seemed to be on the verge of holding the long-due referendum to realize its decolonization in accordance with the UN Declaration of 1960. 

However, more concerned about the stability of the Moroccan monarchy – whose throne had passed from King Hassan II after his death in 1999 to his son Mohammed VI – the US and France nudged the new King to renege on the Houston agreement, Lovatt and Mundy recount. 

The US’ facade of neutrality on the Sahrawi issue and support for the UN Declaration on decolonization – even while antagonizing the Sahrawi liberation struggle all these decades – was officially removed on December 10, 2020.

The White House, under Donald Trump’s presidency, announced that day that “the United States recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory.” Arguing that “an independent Sahrawi State is not a realistic option for resolving the conflict” the US declared that autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is “the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute.”

Less than two years later, Spain, which had reversed its position in the 2000s after facing considerable international shame over its handing over of Sahrawi to Morocco, did another volte face, yielding again to the latter’s claims to sovereignty over its former colony in March 2022.

EU and UK are invested in Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara

This decision of Spain was quickly welcomed by the EU. Its Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell’s spokesperson remarked that stronger bilateral relations between any of its member-states and Morocco “can only be beneficial for the implementation of the Euro-Moroccan partnership.”

94% of the fisheries caught by the European fleets from 2014-18 under this “partnership” with Morocco was from Sahrawi waters. When the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in 2018 that the fisheries agreement with Morocco cannot extend to Sahrawi waters over which Morocco had no sovereignty, the EU simply renegotiated the agreement specifying the inclusion of Sahrawi territory.  

A total of 124,000 tonnes of fishery, worth EUR 447 million, was extracted by Europe from Sahrawi waters in 2019, and another 140,500 tonnes, valued EUR 412 million, in 2020. Ruling on Polisario’s challenge to this continuation of European fishing under a new agreement, the General Court of the European Union annulled the same in September 2021. 

The European Commission appealed this decision of the court in December 2021. In March 2022, the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkervicius reiterated in a response to a question in the EU parliament that “the Commission confirms its commitment to the EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement.” 

Fadel said that the “EU fishing fleets are still finding ways to continue the illegal fishing in the Sahrawi waters with the complicity of the occupying power.”

The United Kingdom High Court of Justice (UKHCJ) had also upheld CJEU’s reasoning in 2019 while ruling in favor of the Western Sahara Campaign UK (WSCUK). The court ruled that the WSCUK “has been completely successful in its litigation” that the preferential treatment given by UK’s Revenue and Customs Service to goods coming from Western Sahara under the EU’s agreement with Morocco went against the international law. The court also concluded the same about the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ granting quotas to British vessels fishing in Sahrawi waters.  

On October 5, 2022, the High Court held the first hearing of the WSCUK’s case against the Department for International Trade and the Treasury over the UK-Morocco Association Agreement (UKMAA), which was signed in October 2019 post-Brexit. 

Three of the five permanent seats with veto power in the UNSC are held by the US, UK and France, all of which have worked against the Sahrawi liberation struggle. Under the watch of the UNSC, “self-determination and decolonization were replaced with a peace process that has given Morocco veto power over how the Sahrawi people fulfill their internationally recognized rights,” observed Lovatt and Mundy.   

“We can only ask the UNSC to stop its pretense about human rights and democracy; to stop its hypocrisy,” Hamza Lakhal, a dissident Arabic poet from Laayoune, the largest city in occupied territory, told Peoples Dispatch. “They will move NATO for Ukraine because they hate Russia, but occupation of Western Sahara against all international laws and resolutions is okay because the occupying power here is a friend.” 

A collective Shame’

Morocco’s ‘friendship’ with the West has not necessarily won support for its occupation from fellow African countries. Its attempt to get Kenya’s new President William Ruto to withdraw the country’s decade-long support to the Sahrawi cause and endorse Moroccan claims of sovereignty over the occupied territory back-fired last month, embarrassing both Ruto and Morocco’s foreign ministry.

Read: Morocco fails to get Kenyan endorsement for its colonial occupation of Western Sahara

Subsequently, when it raised issue with South Sudan’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with SADR on September 20, Morocco was put down in a statement by the former’s foreign ministry, simply clarifying that it will not take a position contradicting that of the AU and UN. 

In a judgment on the same day, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights reiterated that “both the UN and the AU recognize the situation of SADR as one of occupation and consider its territory as one of those territories whose decolonization process is not yet fully complete.”

Stating that “although Morocco has always laid claim on the territory it occupies, its assertion has never been accepted by the international community,” the court reiterated the ICJ’s 1975 advisory opinion. 

Describing Sahrawis’ right to self determination as “inalienable, non-negotiable, and not subject to statutory limitations,” Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, in his address to UNGA on September 27, called on the UN “to assume their legal responsibilities towards the Sahrawi people.” 

The UN-promised “organization of a free and fair referendum in order to enable these courageous people.. to decide on their political future cannot forever be taken hostage by the intransigence of an occupying state, which has failed several times with regards to its international obligations,” he said.  

Namibian President Hage Geingob said in his address to the UNGA that the “lack of progress in implementing UN resolutions to resolve the question of Western Sahara should be something we must all have a collective shame for.”